By Ferd Lewis
A blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown.
A potential touchdown pass dropped in the end zone.
An interception thrown on the goal line.
A 39-yard pass play given up on defense.
The seeds of potential disappointment had lurked around every corner for the University of Hawai'i football team Friday night in Fresno, Calif. The specter of defeat seemingly tapped these Warriors on the shoulder at every turn.
Too many times in the very same Bulldog Stadium in particular, and on the road in general, it had bitten the Warriors and become long, lamented turning points in defeat.
How many times before not only at Brigham Young this year, but at half a dozen other places in recent years had we seen such setbacks turn into collapses?
But not here and not now these maturing-before-our eyes Warriors had decreed.
"We took some shots but we were going to stand in there and get it done this time 'cause that's what good teams do," said Tim Chang, valedictorian and quarterback of this effort.
And, in a four-quarter wide exercise that has taken them to the doorstep of clinching a berth in the inaugural ConAgra Foods Hawai'i Bowl, an invitation they can earn with a victory over San Jose State on Saturday night at Aloha Stadium, the Warriors dispatched Fresno State 31-21 and some of the demons of their own past.
It would be an exorcise in futility for the 6-2 (5-1 WAC) Warriors who, when presented with opportunities to lose instead proved resilient in willing themselves to win a milestone victory on Jim Sweeney Field, where they had never won in the facility's 22-year history.
"Let me tell you, these kids are mentally tough," marveled defensive coordinator Kevin Lempa. "They were going to find ways to win. I mean, I don't remember the last time I was on a team that had won when somebody returned a blocked punt against us (for a touchdown). But these guys did."
June Jones would hoist a beer and call it the biggest victory in his four seasons as head coach at UH.
"I thought the one over BYU (last year) or that comeback (double-overtime) win over Fresno State in '99 that got us (a share of) the conference was," Jones said. "But this one, being on the road, in Fresno and how we won, this was the biggest win I've had."
The presumption would be seconded by Chang, who threw the fourth-quarter interception and said, "I couldn't let the pick get me down. I told the guys, 'my fault, let's go back out and win this one.' The O-line, the receivers, the defense, nobody let the tough breaks get them down, they all came together to make this happen."
There was cornerback Kelvin Millhouse who got burned on a 39-yard third-quarter play and came back to make two crucial fourth-quarter interceptions, one in Hawai'i territory to set up Chang's go-ahead touchdown pass, and a second at the goal line to silence the Bulldog's comeback drive.
Then, there was slotback Britton Komine who caught the go-ahead 13-yard touchdown pass with 2:25 left.
"I had dropped a ball in the end zone and all I wanted was a chance for redemption," Komine said. "When I got it, that made it all the sweeter."
For the Warriors and for what it meant, this would be one sweet one, indeed.